RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The Virginia NAACP said new records turned over by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration show a lack of “consistency or clear standards” in how the state restores the voting rights of people with felony convictions who have served their sentences.
The documents were provided to the Virginia NAACP after the chapter sued over records on the restoration process it said Youngkin’s administration illegally withheld after a Freedom of Information Act request in May.
The Virginia NAACP said the records on the restoration process — which the governor quietly rolled back to end the longstanding practice that made restoring the voting rights of Virginians with felonies partly automatic — came before the two sides were set to meet in court last Friday.
The chapter raised concerns over what the documents revealed, claiming they “underscore the arbitrariness of the process,” including applicants with nonviolent felonies on their record being denied without explanation.
In Virginia, people lose their right to vote, run for office and other civil rights when convicted of a felony and must petition the governor to regain them. People need to petition the courts to restore their firearms rights.
Applicants received no justification, the records show, only getting a generic response that they were deemed ineligible by Youngkin and that the governor has the “final decision in rights restoration and has the discretion to grant or deny individuals after the review period has been completed.”
In one email exchange from Aug. 29, a person seeking to have their rights restored asks why they were denied.
“Is there a reason why? After all I feel I deserve an explanation because I’m not a violent felon and I am trying to do something with my life,” they wrote. “I wanted to start taking classes towards law enforcement to be on the right side of the law instead of the wrong. This is very discouraging.”
The response from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, which came from an unnamed respondent from the Restoration of Rights email, was direct and provided no clarity: “The Governor has deemed you ineligible for rights restoration at this time. You are eligible to reapply for restoration a year after the decision is made.”
The Virginia NAACP, advocates and lawmakers have criticized the Youngkin administration, claiming that his decision to break from his predecessors, including Republicans, has led to an unclear process that has led to people having their rights restored at a snail’s pace or not at all.
“Our investigation has revealed the grave injustice Governor Youngkin is inflicting upon Virginia’s returning citizens, who are disproportionately Black Virginians,” Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. said in a statement.
People with felony convictions seeking to have their rights to vote, run for office and serve on a jury restored are now required to file an application given to them once they are released. They are all “considered individually,” then-Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James wrote in a March 22 letter to state Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake).
The Youngkin administration’s change is a shift from a 2013 policy change implemented by Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) to automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies who meet specific requirements.
Barnette raised concerns about people’s eligibility to vote in the Nov. 7 elections, which have since passed, pointing to a Nov. 1 letter from the state attorney general’s office included in the records. The letter states that more than 1,000 applications submitted from Jan. 15, 2022, to Oct. 31 need more information, are incomplete or more information was requested.
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the administration and the NAACP met and held discussions on the issue multiple times over months. She added that the governor shared around 680 pages of records, including some he was not required to under the law.
“In a good faith effort to work with the NAACP, our office underwent an extensive process to fulfill their requests and they just continue to employ political tactics,” Porter said. “The Governor firmly believes in the importance of second chances for Virginians who have made mistakes but are working to move forward as active members of our citizenry.”